Saying no: the essential gesture of stewardship

December 8, 2008 | 29 comments

A few weeks ago I got invited to a “women in business” luncheon put on by the business school where my husband teaches part-time (this is the one I mentioned in #2 here where I got caught in the downpour right before). I thought about declining since my skills from managing this crazy household might just be too advanced compared to the women who are only CEO’s or VP’s of large companies, but when I saw the topic I realized it was an answered prayer: Finding Balance.

The guest speaker was a professor at the school who is known for getting standing ovations at the end of his classes, so I had high expectations about his presentation. And I wasn’t disappointed. He covered a lot of territory, too much to summarize in a blog post, but the main thing he said that has stuck with me ever since is this:

To say no is to protect what you’ve said yes to.

He referred to being able to say no to new demands on your time as “the essential gesture of stewardship.” In other words, if you’re going to be a good steward of the responsibilities you’ve already been given, you must learn to set firm limits on how many other responsibilities you can realistically take on. In other words, you must learn to say no.

I thought this was a refreshing way to look at it. I’ve always thought of having to turn down requests to get involved in some new activity as an entirely difficult, negative proposition, but this helps me see it in a more positive light. When I say no to getting involved in that new parish ministry, I’m really saying yes to the commitment I’ve made to spend evenings hanging out with my husband; when I say no to creating an elaborate website for a friend, I’m saying yes to the commitment I made to put my heart into an article that’s due next month; when I say no to joining some friends for a playdate this week, I’m saying yes to the commitment I made to have more relaxed time with my children where we’re not rushing around to get somewhere; and so on.

I think that this message was truly an answered prayer. After my great to-do-list-slashing session in January I found such great peace, but in the past eleven months I’ve slowly let myself get overbooked again, leaving me back to feeling overwhelmed, like I’m so far behind on everything that I’m drowning.

So the questions I’ve been asking myself over the past few weeks are: “What are the essential responsibilities that I have said yes to?” And, therefore, “What do I need to start saying no to?”

After thinking about it for a long time, the answers I came up with to the second question were interesting and surprising. I’m out of blogging time for this morning, so I’ll share them in an upcoming Part II of this post.

UPDATE: Part II is here.


  1. Lady Lovas

    Jennifer: this was just what I needed to hear; I share your feeling of being overwhelmed in so many levels, that to say I feel like I’m drowning is an understatement.

    I thank God for His word, thru you, that it is ok to say no and that saying no is part of being a good steward.

    Thanks again and many blessings!

  2. Jenny

    Last night I said exactly those words to myself, “I’m so far behind on everything that I’m drowning” and decided I would give complete control over to God to get me back on track. I chose the simplest way I could think of – I will pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.” and trust him to lead me in focusing on one thing at a time until the day is done. At which point, I will accept that I have done all that could be done that day and rest. We’ll see how it goes – in the next two weeks there is A LOT on my plate. I am also going to try this Most Important Things technique ( to make sure that I’m not just working, I’m working on what really, really matters to me.

  3. Jen

    Wow what a great post. I’m looking forward to part II! I always feel extremely guilty when I say “no” to anything (and also know a few people who MAKE me feel guilty when I say no). So then I overbook myself and get extremely anxious and not so nice to be around! I think I may be taking this to prayer with what you said!

  4. SursumCorda

    I totally agree, as long as the things you say no to do not include this blog. 🙂

  5. Kingdom Mama

    Wow, that quote is so universally profound. It applies to battling addictions, temptations, overcommitting….just about everything!

  6. thepipers

    This is an excellent way to think about it! Sometimes simple reframing of the issue can make such a huge difference.

    We had a child die about a year ago, and have found that our capacity for “doing stuff” is so altered. I really think this advice will help me as I try to honor the priorities I have in my life.

  7. Bender

    We should prioritize and sometimes say, perhaps not “no,” but “not right now.”

    But, of course, it depends on who is asking, what it is you are saying “no” to, and the reason you are saying “no.”

    A teenaged girl saying “no” in order to say “yes” to her husband; a man saying “no” in order to say “yes” to protecting the sanctity of marriage and defending his faith; a worker saying “no” to say “yes” to providing for his family and maintaining his fishing business; a tent-maker/amateur lawyer saying “no” to say “yes” to enforcing the law; a couple saying “no” to say “yes” to freedom and empowerment.

    All well and seemingly good reasons to say “no” in order to say “yes” to something else. Indeed, there always are and will be seemingly good reasons to say “no.” The temptation to say “no” to say “yes” to something else is always very great and justifying. But it is a temptation we should be very cautious about, lest our “no” and our “yes” end up being backward, and less good or even greater evil result from our decision.

    It is not really about saying “no.” It is about discernment and prioritization. It is about discerning what is “good” and what is not-so-good or evil. It is discerning about two goods and making appropriate judgments as to what can or should be done first.

    It is about always saying “yes” to good, even if it conflicts with another good, recognizing that one might need to come first. And it is always saying “no” to what is not good or evil.

    That is what the good steward does — protecting ALL the good that has been given to him or her — not saying “yes” to some of the good and “no” to the other in order to say “yes” to the rest. It is about discernment and prioritization. It is about judgment and prudence and justice and fortitude and temperance and wisdom and counsel and understanding and charity and generousity. These things determine whether the answer should be “yes,” even if there is another seemingly conflicting “yes,” or if the answer is “no,” not because there is something else to say “yes” to, but because the thing itself is something that should be said “no” to.

    It is very tempting to say “no.” There are always reasons to say “no” in order to say “yes” to something else. But we should not be so quick to give into the temptation. There is no reason to feel guilty about saying “yes” to one good thing before saying “yes” to some other good thing. There is no reason to feel guilty about demurring in order to give others an opportunity to say “yes,” such that your “yes” would then no longer be necessary. But we should not be so quick to embrace “no” as a virtue.

  8. Becky

    Please don’t start saying No to blogging!!!!!!

    But, really, I am saying a prayer right now that you can find the right things to say “no” – even if it is blogging 🙂

  9. Elizabeth

    Saying no is THE ONLY way I survived my first year with the twins. Yes, it’s truly essential.

  10. Multiple Mom T

    Love this message! I actually copied your whole post and forwarded it onto my “has a massive problem saying no” sister. Thank you!

  11. Joy of Frugal Living

    Great post, and right on the money for me too. I am really lacking the energy to do much right now (first trimester is still going well), and I need to keep my priorities straight. There is so much that is tempting to do, especially in this season. Thanks for the good reminder to be careful!


  12. Joy

    That is a refreshing point of view- thanks for sharing! It is so easy to find yourself in that drowning feeling!

  13. Emily

    This is so good to hear during this busy season. I have such a hard time saying no to people, but then I really struggle with being overwhelmed and am grouchy to the people that need me most. Thanks for this perspective and for passing along the wisdom.

  14. Jules from "The Roost"

    Love this post! It is so encouraging and true! Thank you for the reminder that NO is positive to other yes things! Glad I found your blog!

  15. Hip Mom's Guide

    I love this perspective. Love it. Thanks for sharing.

  16. The Koala Bear Writer

    That is definately a great way of looking at it! I’ll have to remember that.

  17. Kylie w Warszawie

    That is awesome! I have a tendency to say no, and justify it as “I already do enough!” But in reality it’s because I do need to say yes to those other areas of my life.

  18. Julie

    I think this message is from the Lord to me. I needed to hear this today. I know what God is calling me to do and now I need to start saying “no” more often.

  19. Val

    I’m so glad you posted about this -I posted about this just the other day regarding PTA volunteering (at my daughter’s catholic school). I’ve been feeling guilty that I can’t do more, but I already do some volunteering and I work, so if I do much more it will be cutting into time with my kids.

    I would love to get a transcript of that speech and send it to our PTA committee and our parish priest. Maybe it would help them to see from the parent’s perspective.

  20. Zina

    I have been saying no since my first child was born (almost 6 years ago now), and I am a quite a bit less stressed than my other mommy counterparts. Sometimes I think I am a failure for not being able to do all the birthday parties, church volunteer work, and events that they do, but I guess I should remind myself that they probably pay a price for it. I do some, but not as much as others. I still can’t help but feel guilty.

    BTW – my children have inherited my same ability to say no. Some days I don’t really like it.

  21. Natalie C.

    Occasionally, people look at me a little funny when I tell them I have to say no to something. But when I explain that it’s either give up the volunteer work I’m doing, or say no to other things, it’s terms people can understand. The family is definitely our most important stewardship, and I think I probably do say “no” to my kids too much. (“Not right now, I’m on the computer.” Etc.) A lot to think about! Great post- thanks so much for sharing!

  22. Martha

    Some people tend to say yes to more than they can do (ahem, lots of women); some tend to say no when really, they could do more. (maybe this is where Bender was coming from.) An honest assessment of which type of person you are is essential (and your spiritual director can help!!) Then you can stop beating yourself up or encourage yourself to get out more. Although, really, with 3 kids under the age of reason and one more due soon, that limits what you can do, no matter what kind of person you are. Thanks for the thoughtful post again.

  23. beyondhomemaking

    Thank you so much for this Jennifer. Your words have been on my mind ever since I read them. I needed to hear this. I’m doing too much and none of it well. I need to start choosing with the right intentions.

  24. Anonymous


  25. graceunbound

    I learned this lesson a while ago after pushing myself to the point of exhaustion with work and parenting. The thing is, somehow I am really GOOD at cramming in lots of stuff…but I don’t notice what suffers. Last fall I had the opportunity to teach at the college level. Wow! It seemed like a gift straight from God just at the time I was starting out on my own business. At the end of the first semester I had to say “No, I cannot do this again, it is taking too much out of me and the returns are not worth it.” The department head tried to talk me into staying, but I just said “No, I know that this is not the right thing for me at this time.” And do you know what she said? She said that it was really refreshing to hear someone who knows clearly what their limits and their priorities are, because so few people do. I’ve tried to hold fast to that ever since, knowing my limits and knowing my priorities.

  26. Gemma Star

    Thanks for (another) on-the-money post.

    I’ve long had a personal saying: “What you say No to is just as important as what you say Yes to.”

    The grammar isn’t exactly right, but the sentiment is!

    ~ Nona

  27. Beverlydru

    Bravo! Well said!! I did a recent post titled “The Architecture of Yes” with this theme. But you said it waaaay better. : )

  28. Morning Star

    It is such a blessing to hear that saying “no” can actually be an act of stewardship. I always think of stewardship as saying yes to more commitments and activities. I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that God can be more pleased with focused dedication to one calling than with my frantic grabbing for more and more places to serve.

  29. Fr Matt

    I loved the reflection. i remember hearing a priest friend once say- “The quality of my Yes’s increase with the quantity of my No’s”


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